This movie was, as far as I know, universally reviled and then forgotten, and I’m not sure why. People loved the book, I think, and considered the adaptation unworthy. Which… the book was not all that, and the movie was not so bad.

If you are unfamiliar with Cloud Atlas the book, it is a somewhat overdone pastiche of genres that purports to show that everything is connected. Meanwhile visionaries are punished and we are fast heading to our own destruction. It is vaguely fugal, and its main components are: the journal of an American notary in the antipodes in the 1840s, the letters of a young English composer in Belgium in the 1930s, a narrative in the present tense (tooth gnashing heard) about a journalist in not-quite-San-Francisco in the 1970s, the memoirs of an English publisher approximately now, the confession (?) of a Korean service-industry clone in the post-environmental-catastrophe future, and the fireside tale of a Hawai’ian bloke in the post-nuclear-apocalypse future. That’s a lot, and you might say it would be difficult to make into a film. I think that’s true, but I think the film did about as well as could be expected.

The movie doesn’t adhere to the fugal sequence of the book, it merely bounces around among the narratives, and I think that’s a good choice. Moreover, it reuses the actors across storylines, which serves to bring them together, and also to avoid an insane proliferation of paychecks. This does end with Ben Whishaw in unsettlingly good drag and Jim Sturgess and James D’Arcy in somewhat uncomfortable vaguely Asian make-up, but as a storytelling decision it’s effective.

Unfortunately, the film is unable to make you care about all the stories. Jim Broadbent as the English publisher trying to escape from an old folks home is amusing, but forgettable. Tom Hanks as an illiterate futuristic goatherd eventually flirting with Halle Berry is both boring and embarrassing. Mr. D’Arcy, underneath all that make-up, is almost convincingly distraught by the tale of revolution told by Doona Bae’s clone. Ms. Berry is charming and more or less engaging in her 70s haircut and journalistic integrity. But by far the best narrative is that of Mr. Whishaw’s young composer writing to his lover, a touchingly naïve and unusually blond Mr. D’Arcy. Theirs is the only outcome I cared about–I knew what it was, having read the book, but I still cared.

So the movie is no more pretentious than the book, if certainly no less. It’s visually arresting and most of the time periods are convincingly fleshed out technologically or sartorially. No one completely phones it in, and the writing echoes the novel while eschewing some of its most mannered excesses. It is, of course, somewhat fragmented, but that is deliberate and forgivable.

Stray notes:

  • I literally have no idea why Susan Sarandon was in this movie.
  • Or Hugh Grant.

Director: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Rating: R
Length: 172 minutes
Score: 3/5.

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